On February 18, the world couldn’t stop gushing over the successful landing of NASA’s Perseverance Rover on Mars. But this milestone would have been incomplete without Indian-American scientist, Dr Swati Mohan, the Guidance, Navigation, and Controls (GN&C) Operations Lead for the Mars 2020 mission, spearheaded by NASA.
It was exactly 11 minutes - the time taken to receive a message from Mars to Earth - after the rover’s touchdown at 02.29 am IST (February 19) that Dr Mohan announced the big news to her colleagues.
“Touchdown confirmed! Perseverance is safely on the surface of Mars, ready to begin seeking the signs of past life,” exclaimed Dr Mohan to a group of scientists in the mission control room of the US space agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
The rover navigated through space for almost seven months and covered over 472 million kilometres, before entering the Martian atmosphere at 19,000 kilometres per hour to make a historic landing on Mars.
Scientists applauded Dr Mohan for successfully navigating the descent and landing of the rover in the Martian atmosphere near the Jezero crater, which has been described as “seven minutes of terror.” Media reports reveal that the rover will be on the red planet for one Martian year or 687 Earth Days, and will try to collect evidence of ancient microbial life, if any.
A series of missions
A video from 2019 resurfaced on the web, where Dr Mohan can be seen explaining the terrain. “If we didn’t have Terrain Relative Navigation, the probability of landing safely at Jezero Crater is about 80 to 85%. But with Mars 2020, we can actually bring that probability of success of landing safely at Jezero Crater all the way up to 99% safe every single time.”
According to NASA’s official website, “Terrain Relative Navigation (TRN) provides a map-relative position fix that can be used to accurately target specific landing points on the surface and avoid hazards. Almost all future NASA science missions that land on bodies in outer space can benefit from this capability to navigate safely and precisely.”
Dr Mohan has been a part of the Mars mission for eight years now, and has earlier been involved in NASA’s Cassini mission to Saturn as well as the GRAIL mission to the moon.
A dream come true
Born in Bengaluru, the NASA scientist emigrated to the US when she was just a year old. A mechanical engineering graduate from Cornell university, Dr Mohan later went on to complete her masters and doctorate in aeronautics and astronautics from the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Till the age of 16, she dreamt of being a pediatrician, but her love for the American science fiction series ‘Star Trek’ and the motivation of her Physics teacher sparked her interest in discoveries of the universe.
“I was always interested in space, but I didn’t really know about opportunities to turn that interest into a job. I remember watching the first episode of Star Trek at 9, and seeing the beautiful depictions of the new regions of the universe that they were exploring. I remember thinking I want to do that. I want to find new and beautiful places in the universe,” she had told NASA.
(Edited by Amrita Ghosh)